Monday, February 28, 2011

Doing Artful Business in a New Era

As America’s corporate community turns increasingly inward, and businessmen often know little besides business, I appreciate seeing commerce gurus apply the liberal arts to revitalize our economic might. Three new titles show how those classes we considered tedious in college can actually transform business in the 21st Century.

Strategist Mark Levy has updated his decade-old manual, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content, with current discoveries on how freewriting, the technique of free-associating on paper, helps leaders generate ideas, open doors, and surprise themselves on the fly. Levy’s proven method turns English, often a dry subject, into an exciting way of business and life.

If your school was like mine, teachers assigned freewriting as an impromptu coffee break. They never demonstrated how to work productively, make meaning from freewrites, or turn raw matter into finished writing. Levy, however, breaks the process into six simple steps. No more throwing ourselves at the page, hoping we satisfy inscrutable teachers; Levy helps separate useful from useless technique and maximize the experience.

Levy displays his own freewrites, so we savvy how ours could appear, how to efficiently channel our energy, and how to cull anything fruitless. He discusses the process in clear, jargon-free language. And once we crystallize ideas on paper and surprise ourselves with unacknowledged insights, he leads us through several exercises to push freewriting to its unpredictable potential.

Though Levy uses examples from business, nothing about his technique is exclusive to the executive suite. Anyone who leads teams, innovates, or handles words can learn from Levy’s spirited guide. Levy’s freewriting is all about revitalizing ideas, and his hands-on approach can make the difference between selling the same stale roles and really offering something new.

Hollywood mogul Peter Guber made a career turning raw ideas into finished entertainment. In the high-stakes dream factories, even great ideas die if he can’t present them winningly. In Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, Guber explains how storytelling, mixing English, theatre, and business, separates DOA pitches from finished sales.

Humans think in narrative, seeking patterns to comprehend and heroes to cheer. But business types often rely on the “data dump,” flourishing statistics and credentials to think audiences into submission. Guber says we must first make audiences care; only when we have them by the heart can we persuade them with facts. And they care when we tell a story.

Stories may be short. Guber recalls when Bill Clinton, then an embattled candidate, simply referred to the movie High Noon. He also describes how, when Mark Werner bought the Boston Red Sox, he realized Fenway Park was the story, and reinvigorating the park took him from Boston heel to local hero overnight.

Guber’s technique begins with knowing our audience, since the story we tell at a dive bar won’t sell cookies to the Temperance League. But we don’t just speak when we tell stories; we also listen, leading audiences on a journey specific to themselves. Business pitches aren’t that different, Guber says, from stories around a campfire.

But Guber’s technique doesn’t include everything necessary to close the deal. Kevin Dutton’s Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds describes the five-part SPICE method to explain how people decide. Though I doubt Dutton’s method alone will change many minds, paired with Guber’s storytelling and Levy’s freewriting, it should open doors.

For Dutton, persuaders clinch the sale through Simplicity, Perceived self-interest (that’s your self-interest, not the persuader’s), Incongruity, Confidence, and Empathy. A short, surprising pitch from someone bold, friendly, and interested moves a lot faster than a wordy, drab, disconnected “data dump.”

We often make decisions instantaneously, according to Dutton, without realizing anyone asked us to decide. When we persuade others, we have a narrow window, maybe less than a second, to clinch the sale. And sadly, many persuasive factors lie outside our conscious control.

But we must keep vigilant. Not everyone who persuades with SPICE has our interests at heart. Psychopaths, who cannot naturally empathize, become natural at mimicking and manipulating others’ feelings. Most psychopaths aren’t dangerous; according to Dutton, most CEOs demonstrate at least some psychopathic traits. But that means we must always watch.

By generating new ideas, making others care, and clinching the sale, business uses the quiet secrets behind the liberal arts. These books prove why our economy relies on an educated populace, and why businessmen who know more than just business are the ones you should trust with your business.